Month: March 2011

High on Fire

High on Fire - The Art of Self-DefenseHigh On Fire! The kind of band you go see or put on when you feel like running headfirst into a brick wall! The first time I saw them was in the fall of 2000 at CBGBs, the notorious Bowery club in NYC that no longer exists. It was a metal show, and I knew some of the bands on the (really packed) bill and it ended up being a fantastic time. One of the bands Boulder, had the total Judas Priest thing going on with the Flying V’s and enough Marshall stacks onstage to sink it. I think it took them longer to set up than it did for them to do their set, but they had a real interesting metal/hardcore thing going on complete with the twin leads and twisted vocals and it was pretty good. Acid King played next and were played great and totally impressed me. I bought Busse Woods right after their set. Then High on Fire came on. It was great, I mean like GRRRRRREAT! They played their Man’s Ruin release, The Art of Self-Defense,  and the song Eyes and Teeth, which would be on their 2nd release, Surrounded by Thieves, as well as a Steel Shoe.

I really dug this version of the band. It never really got any better for me after this, but I know I’m in the minority. HOF started out as Stoner Rock, really groovin’ sludgy riffs and interesting song structures and then by the time their first bass player left and they released their 3rd album, Blessed Black Wings, they turned into a full-on metal band. It was a good move for them I think, as they have been very successful; they’ve made 2 more records and have opened for Metallica in Europe, and that’s pretty friggin’ good. These guys have worked hard and toured a lot and deserve every reward that comes their way.

High on Fire - Surrounded by Thieves coverBut the stoner-rock/doom idiom is more interesting to me to listen to, and as a guitar player. I like instrumental approach and the really LONG songs that go through many complex parts and changes. This first time I saw HOF I thought they were Sabbath meets Zeppelin mixed with prog-rock and lo-fi free jazz kind of stuff. Very physical and pummeling for sure, but not the straight-ahead doom or metal played by other bands, even some of the other bands that were on the bill. There was a lot of atmosphere and dynamics and CBGBs was a great place to see a band where the guitarist and bass player were each using 3-4 cabinets. It was LOUD and standing close as I was…RIGHT IN MY FACE. AWESOME! Definitely ranks as one of the best shows ever, and I saw tons of shows at CBGBs over the years. To this day HOF have retained quite a bit of that early diversity and have never sacrificed their pummeling brutal intensity, sound and approach, so I don’t want to give the impression that I think they sold out and would understand if the band would say “hey, we’ve been doing basically the same thing all along,” because in a way, that’s true.

High on Fire-Sleeve image from 1st releaseMatt Pike is a guitar monster and has been ever since he was a youngster in the band Sleep. High on Fire, even in the beginning, with drummer Des Kensel and bass player George Rice, had a very pummeling sound. I’ve read in interviews that Matt took a jazz guitar course or two and I think I hear some John McLaughlin in his playing—definitely some Tony Iommi, Dave Murray from Iron Maiden, and Motorhead. There is this space in time where prog-rock, jazz, fusion, stoner rock and metal meet and I think in the early days, and maybe a little bit still, Matt Pike was trying to make ALL of it work for him. Like the main riff from Baghdad is just sick! and the end jam on Master of Fists and parts of  Thraft of Canaan (WTF is a “THRAFT”) sound really jazzy to me, especially the circular style drumming and the guitar soloing. When multiple styles overlap the music becomes very interesting, not only because there is so much ROCK and complex musical inspiration to draw from, but, also, the potential to create completely new hybrids of ideas and combinations is almost limitless.

High on Fire-Blessed Black WingsI learned the riffs to the Art of Self-Defense and a band I was in at the time even covered Master of Fists live. Had to drop the guitar tuning down to C for that heavy-riffing sound and just bang along. Lots of clever parts and fun riffs to do—Last, Fireface, 10,000 Years, Baghdad, Master of Fists and Blood From Zion are all total headbangers.  Surrounded by Thieves also had a lot of great stuff on it; Eyes and Teeth, Nemesis and Thraft of Canaan are all brutally beautiful. I did like Blessed Black Wings and the hooks, riffs and execution just kept getting better and better—The Face of Oblivion and Cometh Down the Hessian, Sons of Thunder (which sounds like heavy prog-rock to me) and To Cross the Bridge are just amazing. The recording sounded great, Matt’s lyrics are always totally metal and the album artwork is always really awesome too. I think he’s a guy who wants his music to take the listener somewhere, it’s not all about slaying and pummeling and throwing the horns.

These days Matt plays a custom-made 9 string guitar! How cool is that? With the 3 high strings doubled (like on a 12-string) he can get more “body” and a chorus type of effect without switching on a pedal. Since he does a lot of his riffing Iommi-style, which translates to doing most everything heavy on the 2 low strings, he can crush heavy and also have this very beautiful chorus-type of ring going on simultaneously. Brilliant!


Mick Ronson

Mick Ronson in Guitar World magazine 1990Many years ago I had the opportunity to write for Guitar World Magazine. It was a whole lot of fun and over the course of a few years I was able to sit down and talk with some great guitar players, some of whom were legends and others who were young up-and-comers. I’ll be reliving some of these interviews in this blog from time to time and I’m going to start with my favorite, the late, great Mick Ronson. Most people know him as the guitar player for David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust years, but he was much more than that. When I sat down with him for a couple of hours in late 1989 he was on tour with his long-time buddy Ian Hunter, promoting the Yui Orta album. He was such a super-nice guy it was unbelievable. I was a huge fan of the albums he’d done with David Bowie prior to their big break-out, Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and he was genuinely pleased that I was asking about stuff he did on Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World as well as Ziggy’s successor, Alladin Sane, an album I played out even more than Ziggy Stardust. Aside from being an awesome guitar player, he was heavily involved in the production of not only the Bowie albums, but also, Lou Reed’s Transformer, string arrangements for Pure Prairie League, and this, lifted from Wikipedia, which he and I didn’t even discuss (I don’t really dig John Mellencamp but the Uh-huh album was okay, I guess).

“I owe Mick Ronson the hit song, Jack & Diane. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for ‘Jack & Diane’, Mick said ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the fuck does put baby rattles on the record mean? So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.” (John Mellencamp, Classic Rock magazine, January 2008, p.61)

That was Mick’s attitude and effectiveness at production and playing. He used his imagination to come with some of the coolest stuff and it resulted in big records, not only for his own band, but others as well. He wasn’t afraid to do or say something outlandish that would leave people scratching their heads…until they actually heard it.

As a journeyman guitarist, he also played with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour in 1974, Mott the Hoople, Van Morrison and, he recorded three of his own solo albums. He wasn’t a chops monster, especially considering we talked during the height of the hair metal years, but he could play a great solo if the song demanded it and lots of songs he is on are layered in a way that gives them a very dramatic and symphonic sound. He embraced the solo as a motif or story within a story theory and that certainly helped with his writing and production roles. Sometimes guitar players just wanna play too much.

He also, during the course of our conversations, told me of his great love of punk rock because of the energy and the willingness to try new things. He embraced many styles and was a man at home in whatever style he happened to be playing at the time. As it was time to say goodbye I mentioned that I was recording with my EV punk band that day and he started asking me questions! How cool is that? Mick Ronson asking “what’s the studio like? How many tracks are you using? etc, etc. We spent another 10-15 minutes talking about the session and I have never gone into a session, before or since, as pumped as I was that day. His one nugget of advice that I have never forgotten was, “don’t be afraid to do something outrageous or spontaneous to get something going. Everything doesn’t have to be planned out.”

It was really sad to hear of Mick’s passing a few years later at the young age of 46, but it is beautiful to see that the influence he had on many people has not faded away. I feel lucky to have been in his presence, if only for a couple of hours. Here he is talking guitar on video.

Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt was the first guitar hero and everyone playing guitar today owes him a debt of gratitude for the trail he blazed. There is very little that we do today that he wasn’t doing 70+ years ago, sans amplification, effects and with only two fingers. Well that’s not really true — he did have an early prototype of the FLANGER. HA! I wonder what Django would’ve done with a flanger!! He did begin using an amplified Selmer guitar post-WW 11 and was tearing it up electric style for just a few years before his very untimely death in 1953 at the age of only 43. During a career spanning almost twenty years he recorded literally hundreds of sides that will blow your mind. If you’re the typical USA rock type guitar player, Django is that guy, the one you always hear about and you either wonder why or don’t, (but should). While he was able to use all four fingers and the thumb for chording/comping, he played all of his fiery leads with just two fingers. You can watch him doing it right now.

Personally, I think this whole clip is brilliant — Django’s playing on the intro with all of those lush beautiful chords and snappy single string lines and the duet he does with Stephane Grappelli’s great violin melody improvisation on the second intro chorus. Once the song kicks in, Django’s brother, Joseph and dashing gangster/great musician, Pierre “Baro” Ferret on rhythm guitars effectively illustrate why drummers are not always necessary. I also love the old-time radio voice. It’s a very evocative snapshot of a time long gone and it’s the only clip that shows Django playing a whole song with the sound/film synched. Note Django’s solo; all the bends he employs—something many players, including myself don’t do nearly as well or nearly enough. Then there is the chromatic run starting at 2:52: zzzzzzip! Classic Django and the type of lick everyone wants to play. /p>

You can’t appreciate how cool Django is until you actually try to play his music— even if you use ALL of your digits! Django had awesome licks, incredible dexterity and picking power, and complete rhythmic control of everything he was doing — he was a bona-fide genius for sure and that’s without bringing his composition abilities into the discussion. Django jammed with some of the premier soloists and players of his day and there wasn’t one who didn’t recognize his profound command of the instrument. I think he also had a very sublime and relaxed sense of humor and music to him was as easy as breathing and delightful as a new toy is to a child. It has been said by people who saw him play that it was pretty much impossible for him to make a mistake, even if he was at a jam session playing a song like Rose Room for twenty or thirty minutes. Music more less fell out of him and for that reason I think all of Django’s music is so cool, even if it sounds dated or the recordings don’t sound like they were recorded with Doubly, er, I mean Dolby. Here was a man who was really plugged into the that great cosmic axis and could channel it to his whims whenever and however he desired. It’s important to realize that there was a World War going on for seven years of his career and the whole concept of making records hadn’t exactly come into its own, so while the sound of his records doesn’t always compare with a disc that was released last year or even twenty or thirty years ago, Django’s musical imagination, brilliant sense of timing, and muscular dexterity enabled him to compose, perform and record some of the most inventive and melodious music ever heard.

From a player’s perspective Gypsy Jazz is difficult to learn for a few reasons. First, it originated with one guy really…Django. He invented a whole style of music that continues to flourish today. Amazing! Also, because he was such a complete virtuoso, everyone who tries to “walk the walk” and attempts to capture the spirit of his music or play even the heads to some of the songs needs to be a serious player, and many players, especially from the Gypsy community have succeeded in upping the ante on the virtuosity quotient that is contained in the music. Finally, while it enjoys quite a bit of respect and popularity in Europe, it has never been so in the USA. Some believe that it is more popular here today than it ever was and that is telling, especially considering Django and Stephane formed their first group in the early 1930s. The internet has had a very profound effect on this new popularity because it is much easier to acquire discs from overseas, find music and solos tabbed out and learn the style from players who play in well. However, Django has always been very popular and influential among players. A list of those people who sing praises for Django’s abilities reads like a who’s who of the greatest six-stringers ever, including; Jeff Beck, Jerry Garcia, Dicky Betts, Joe Pass, Les Paul, Julian Bream, Chet Atkins, and many others like Brian Setzer, Dan Hicks, and Willie Nelson, who have brought the swinging vibe of the original Hot Club into their own music.

Before Django Reinhardt no one had been able to sell the guitar as the GUY-MAN-DUDE instrument that we all know it as today. If anything, by now, the whole flash guitar player wailing in front of the band is probably viewed by many as passé (note my use of French—impressive isn’t it?). But in Django’s day no one could imagine that there would be a time when the guitar would rule the orchestra and dudes would be rockin’ out to it and dudettes would be rocking out to it! But Django was more that just a guitar player. So much more. He was also a composer, influenced by classical musicians such as Bach, Stravinsky and Debussy, as well as jazz greats like his idol, the man who inspired him to play jazz, Louis Armstrong. You can hear this wide variety of influences in his music as it is not strictly jazz, but in a class by itself. Listen to songs like Bolero (1937), the incredible Mystery Pacific (1937), Tiger Rag, and the offbeat Stockholm, as well as many others.

Django pioneered the whole concept of the high-energy, brilliant composer musician who uses a guitar as his instrument of choice to lead an orchestra (read: band). He also influenced the whole development of rock and roll more than most people realize. Many of the “British Invasion” rock players; George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Brian May were obviously influenced by Django; I hear his influence and the influence of the Hot Club sound in a lot of British Invasion music from the 60s and 70s.  During the 30s and 40s many people loved the Hot Club in the UK and thought Django was a total superstar, which leads me to believe when young George, Jeff, Jimmy, Brian and the others were learning to play guitar, their dads probably put on their favorite Django records and said “FORGET ELVIS! YOU WANT TO BE A GUITAR HERO? LISTEN TO THIS GUY!” (I’m sure they didn’t all yell in all caps like that, but I just wanted to make it stand out). Even though Django only made in to the USA once, after WWII, there were stories of American servicemen who went looking for him while they were in Europe during the war because they had already heard his music and wanted to see for themselves what he was doing. But because he only came over once, and not with the Hot Club or Stephane Grappelli, there was never any kind of very popular recognition of the style of music they had invented. It has been, and remains, music mostly for players, although, as someone who has been to shows and has played shows of Django’s music, it NEVER goes out of style. At it’s core the music is bouncy, happy, melodious sophisticated and rhythmically shakin’. It has a timeless, infectious quality that is right for many different settings and occasions.

Django came to the USA in 1946 to tour with Duke Ellington. Here is a real interesting page I literally just found on Django’s trip to the USA, specifically his friendship with early swing guitar star Harry Volpe. Harry Volpe was a heavy cat back in the day and there is some really great info and some really great pics at the site. Not only was Harry a great player, but he also ran a music store and taught guitar. His students included Johnny Smith, Sal Salvador and Joe Pass! Whoa! I also think that maybe except for Roy Rogers, he might have been the first American guitar player to have a signature guitar model. But I have to research that and Harry  further.

But back to Britain. One of Django’s famous songs is Tears. Here is Michelle, by the Beatles. I hear a lot of similarities. If you play both in C minor, it’s easy to create a “mash-up” that flows perfectly. And the Beatles sing parts of Michelle in french…hmm. I might be stretching it but, after listening to Django’s music I believe I hear it in music I’ve known for a long time. I’m not saying that everyone necessarily is copying him, but you couldn’t ask for a better influence, especially if you’re a guitar player.

Here are some of my favorite Django moments. There will be many more posts where I will write about what I’ve learned from playing his music, where I see that it shows up in modern music, and how you too can maybe cop some gypsy-flavored stuff for yourself.

After You’ve Gone 1936
[QHCF – Stephane Grappelly (v), Django Reinhardt, Joseph Reinhardt, Pierre Ferret (g), Lucien Simoens (b), Freddy Taylor (vo)] This tune is great—brilliant playing by Stephane Grappelli, smooth vocal by Mr. Freddy Taylor and Django uncorks a solo that is less than 60 seconds of unadulterated genius (listen how the whole thing takes off after the break). Can’t forget to acknowledge the rhythm playing of Joseph Reinhardt and Pierre “Baro” Ferret who were chug masters. There’s no drums or percussion on this and it is awesome in its intensity.

What’s scary is that on the 1949 version of this song the solo is longer and even better. I think Django liked playing After You’ve Gone and it is still played by many as a Gypsy jazz “standard”.

Oiseaux de Iles 1940
I love the sound of this song!!! It’s just so WEIRD, modern, jittery and evocative. Cubist, Jean Genet, Picasso or something. France was under siege and already occupied by the Nazis. The whole vision is Django’s, from the jumping quasi-train/shuffle rhythm to the clarinet “head”. His solo is naturally a blast to listen to and try to play. Except for the quick descending arpeggios it is actually pretty doable compared to others that just make you shake your head and go out for a walk. This is atmosphere. In and of itself there is nothing spectacular about the song; most groups don’t play it, it’s not his best guitar solo and some critics have dismissed it as too jittery or a throwaway. I think it is incredibly inventive for 1940.

Nuit de St. Germain Des Pres 1952
Django does bebop. Some people have trouble with Django in his later days, but I’m not one of those people. I think he did some of his best stuff after WWII and this song shows he was still at the top of his game. Here is a dub clip of the tune from a (most-likely) very forgettable movie. This was just a year before Django passed away. That is Hubert Fol on sax and Django’s son, Babik next to him.

Later career songs like “Nuit“, Troublant Bolero, Anouman, Fleche d’Or, and Impromptu all prove that Django was not only still a great guitar player, but also hadn’t lost any of his edge as a composer.

Manoir de mes reves (Django’s Castle) 1943
A beautiful composition, equal to the famed and well-known Nuages, in my opinion. While Django could certainly burn anyone when it came to high-energy swing tunes, or hang with any renowned soloist of the day in a jam session, he was capable of writing some of the most beautiful, melancholy pieces of music ever set to wax. Recorded for the first time during probably some of the darkest days of WW II, one can hear in it the desire to escape, even if only in dreams, from the harsh realities of war, occupation and maybe, from life itself. Django was the quintessential dreamer and there are many tales of his inability to stay focused to the realities of even being a famous (and hopefully reliable) guitar master. But possibly it is from that unreliable place where all of his beautiful ideas were formed and brought to life. Although Django reached his creative peak during the war years and actually enjoyed financial and artistic success, he couldn’t have been happy with what was happening around him and it’s possible that he was always happier dreaming and wandering in his imagination than he was living out the life of an actual person.

Also, it’s a heckuva solo!! Total Django — the diagonal fretboard approach heavy on diminished arpeggios that you can still hear in players like Romane, Stochelo Rosenberg, Birelli Lagrene, Angelo Debarre, Wawau Adler, Tchavalo Schmitt, Dorado Schmitt, Fapy Lafertin, Stephane Wrembel and many others.

Cou-Cou 1940
This song isn’t a guitar number per se, but a charming song out of left field because it has a vocalist, Josette Dayde singing along. This song was also part of the MAFIA game, which I don’t even have, believe it or not. Django’s playing is simple, but bouncy and the song has a very “up” vibe to it.  Josette Dayde didn’t last long with the group because Django let her go after only a short time, but her voice and the take of this song has a vibe that seems very quaint and innocent 70 years later. Many prefer Beryl Davis with the Hot Club and she was certainly a more accomplished singer and had a longer and more successful career. But the first time I heard this song there was a demure, SEXY quality about Ms. Dayde that one doesn’t hear in music anymore. She was out of showbiz shortly after WW II it seems (she was quite the youngster of 17 when she recorded this song) and outlived Django by more than 40 years, passing in 1995. Here she is on an out of sync video singing Quand Betty fait boop.

Mystery Pacific (1937)
I know I mentioned this already, but this is quite simply flat out amazing! You can hear the power Django was capable of putting into his playing. This was recorded as the Hot Club was really coming into it’s own and there is swagger and confidence in Django’s and Stephane’s playing. They compliment each other nicely and the whole song is a streamline train on full-throttle until the end. Django does his whole routine; fast picked licks, tremelo chords, rhythmic jabs and stabs in the high register, and another of his patented chromatic runs into his solo. This is a song I’d like to see one of the modern masters do, even on YouTube, but I don’t know that anyone has. I can’t find it. But it’s a fitting close to this first of many posts on the original guitar hero.